Benjamin Mays (ca. 1894-1984)
Benjamin Elijah Mays was born on August 1, 1894 or 1895 in a rural area outside Ninety-Six, South Carolina. He was the youngest of eight children born to Louvenia Carter and Hezekiah Mays, tenant farmers and former slaves. A consistent theme in Mays's boyhood and early adulthood was his quest for education against overwhelming odds. He refused to be circumscribed by the widespread poverty and racism of his place of birth. After some struggle he gained acceptance to Bates College in Maine. After completing his B.A. there in 1920, Mays entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student, earning an M.A. in 1925 and a Ph.D. in the School of Religion in 1935.
Career and Accomplishments
Mays's education at Chicago was interrupted several times, first by stints as a teacher at Morehouse and at South Carolina State College. During his tenure at the latter, he met his future wife, Sadie Gray. They were married for forty-three years, from 1926 until her death in 1969. Mays's work for the Urban League and the YMCA similarly postponed his doctoral efforts. In 1933, with coauthor Joseph Nicholson, Mays published a groundbreaking study entitled The Negro's Church, which described the unique origins and character of this central African American institution, offering a critique of some of its problematic clerical practices.
Less than a year before completing his dissertation at Chicago in the spring of 1935, Mays accepted
In 1940 Mays became the president of Morehouse College. There he enjoyed his greatest influence on events in the history of the United States, rising to national prominence. His most famous student at Morehouse was Martin Luther King Jr. During King's years as an undergraduate at Morehouse in the mid-1940s, the two developed a close relationship that continued until King's death in 1968. Mays's unwavering emphasis on two ideas in particular—the dignity of all human beings and the incompatibility of American democratic ideals with American social practices—became vital strains in the language of King and the civil rights movement. Although
As an administrator at Morehouse, Mays expanded and streamlined the structure of the institution and enhanced its academic reputation. He was a highly successful fund-raiser, securing the needed financial support for Morehouse to pursue its educational goals. Beyond such practical concerns, Mays left a legacy of prominent Morehouse graduates and lent the college his own inimitable style, characterized by rigor and enthusiasm for the Morehouse mission.
After his retirement in 1967 from Morehouse, Mays remained active in several social and political organizations of prominence and was in demand as a speaker and lecturer. He published two autobiographies in these years, Born to Rebel (1971), and Lord, the People Have Driven Me On (1981). He died in 1984.
Lawrence Edward Carter, ed., Walking Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998).
Randal M. Jelks, "Benjamin Elijah Mays and the Creation of an Insurgent Professional Negro Clergy," AME Church Review 118 (July-September 2002).
Benjamin E. Mays, Born to Rebel: An Autobiography (New York: Scribner, 1971; reprint, with a revised foreword by Orville Vernon Burton, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003).
Peter A. Kuryla, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee
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